It isn’t unheard of, but rarely do popular musicians ever seem to transfer to the world of cinema well. For every Cher or Lady Gaga, you have a hundred Madonnas, and with Australian singer Sia’s bafflingly misbegotten musical drama Music, we can add her to the list of musicians who should probably stick to what they know.
Kazu (Kate Hudson) is a hot mess – a recovering alcoholic who is estranged from her family and presumably couch-surfing her way through her late 30s, as we never see her in her own home. She gets a call informing her of her grandmother’s death. She immediately asks if there’s a will, and there isn’t, but she is now asked to take custody of ‘a magical little girl’, her half-sister Music (Maddie Ziegler), who has severe nonverbal autism. As the two learn to live with each other, we see the world through Music’s eyes, in the form of big, colorful, vibrant, eye punishing song and dance numbers.
I’ll start off by saying that I have not seen a movie trashed as heavily as Music since Tom Hooper’s Cats, back in 2019. The internet discourse about why this film is so problematic has only made me more interested to see what’s really going on here. And while I don’t think any claims of ableism or damaging insensitivity are in the wrong, I feel like I would be more willing to defend Music if it were a better movie.
It would be wrong for me not to start by addressing the elephant in the room. Sia cast her muse, dance prodigy Maddie Ziegler in a role that is truly going to haunt her the rest of her career. Ziegler is not autistic, and is playing the role of Music in a crudely over-the-top way that reminds me of Rosie O’Donnell’s performance in the 2005 made-for-TV movie Riding the Bus With My Sister (this is worth a Google if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) I’m sure Ziegler is essentially here doing what Sia asked of her, and ultimately I do think Sia meant well. However, there are several fundamental problems here that are difficult to ignore.
First – it’s difficult to imagine a person with severe nonverbal autism would see the world like this. The overwhelming stimuli of the candy-colored, loud, pulsating, shockingly ugly high-energy musical numbers that look like a rejected Old Navy back-to-school-sale commercial, would probably be quite stressful for someone with severe autism. This is probably exactly why Sia did not cast a person on the spectrum in this role, because she couldn’t. Zeigler, who was 14 years old at the time Music filmed, apparently came to Sia crying, saying she didn’t want to play the role because she didn’t want anyone to think she was making fun of them. Sia made her do it anyway, and if Zeigler’s smart, she’ll never work with Sia again.
Also, the disabled person as a plot device and the ‘magical disabled person are tropes I thought we did away with years ago. The main plot of this movie is Kate Hudson’s Kazu getting her life together, and yet she doesn’t achieve this through taking care of her sister or getting to know her or learning about autism in general. We don’t even know how she achieves this point of redemption because it just happens when the movie decides it’s ready to end, when we’re getting close to the two hour mark.
Music brings Kazu together with next door neighbor Ebo, a catastrophic waste of Leslie Odom, Jr. Ebo has been helping with Music for a while, and he happily declares that his brother who was also autistic, was stoned to death in his African village, because in his culture that’s seen as a curse. If that weren’t bad enough, there’s a plot development involving his character in the second half that I’m not going to directly talk about, but trust me, this is undeniably gross and pretty racist stuff.
Kate Hudson is nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance here. The film is also nominated for best picture, which we’ll get to, but Hudson’s performance is…fine, bordering on utterly underwhelming. Her facial expressions suggest she doesn’t really want to be here at all, and also that she wants to object to what’s going on here, but is too thrilled to be in a leading role again, she doesn’t quite care enough to, even when the leading role is, well, this. Hudson made almost the same exact movie way back in 2004, Gary Marshall’s Raising Helen, in which she played a hot mess woman who had to find redemption by adopting a dead loved one’s child. And that’s a movie I didn’t like either.
And then there’s Sia herself. Sia directed her own music videos some years ago, and I guess in that process worked up the confidence to direct her own feature film. She also wrote and produced and composed the music for it. The musical numbers play like Sia music videos with some deeply icky subtext and maybe two of them aren’t completely painful to look at. The choreography kind of sucks, and the visual style is almost always visually excruciating. The songs also have little to no connection to what’s going on in the story at any given moment, and the movie kind of grinds to a halt so people can dance in funny costumes, so that’s another strike against them.
The screenplay does not contain one character who isn’t a total cliché, and any dialogue that’s believable. The best part involves not only a Sia name-drop (‘is that a Sia wig?’) but an extended cameo where you realize that Sia is more vain than even Madonna was with her directorial debut, W.E. It’s difficult to say if this is more or less baffling than anything else going on here, but I honestly think it’s going to be a significant amount of time before Sia can proudly show her face in this business again.
The fact that Sia somehow convinced actors like Mary Kay Place, Juliette Lewis, Tig Notaro, Ben Schwartz and Kathy Najimy to take part in this inexplicable disaster is truly mystifying to me. Music was filmed in New York City back in mid-2017, so this film has been sitting around since then, since presumably no studio wanted to distribute it in the US or elsewhere. It’s finally arrived in 2021 via Vertical Entertainment, which mainly distributes straight-to-DVD titles, and it’s truly shocking when anyone consciously pays attention to a Vertical release, unless they’re staring at a Redbox machine.
However, someone at Vertical or perhaps Sia herself, paid good money to give Music a publicity boost, via Golden Globe nominations. Music is nominated in the Best Picture – Musical or Comedy category this year. I can think of at least five better films that could have taken its place, even in a pandemic year where we didn’t get as many movies as usual. I can also think of about ten female performances in that category that were more deserving than Kate Hudson’s. With how shamelessly the Golden Globes can be bought, I guess I should just be happy Sia isn’t nominated for best director.
Ultimately, Music is a collection of deeply misguided choices that come together to create something that feels like an unmitigated disaster. I completely understand why autistic people and their loved ones are offended by this, but I personally think that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Music is a catastrophic trainwreck in every possible way, and I hope for Maddie Zeigler’s sake, we can someday forget this ever happened.